Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried (1990) Literature and War Readalong September 2011

A sequence of stories about the Vietnam War, this book also has the unity of a novel, with recurring characters and interwoven strands of plot and theme. It aims to summarize America’s involvement in Vietnam, and her coming to terms with that experience in the years that followed.

I expected The Things They Carried to be a very good book. A very good book about the war in Vietnam. What I found is not only an outstanding book about the war in Vietnam but also about the art of storytelling. I’m really impressed. I don’t normally rely so heavily on quotes but in this case, I think, the author is the best person to give an accurate impression of his excellent writing.

But this too is true: stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They’re all dead. But in a story which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. (…) The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.

The Things They Carried is told in interwoven stories. They are linked through the characters who return in most of them and through the common themes of war and storytelling. Each of the tales shows another way of telling a story or looks at an episode from another angle. Some are explicitly written by a writer for his readers only, they have never been told before. Some describe how the soldiers tell each other stories of what happened while they were separated or how they keep on retelling the same stories over and over again. Telling these stories gives meaning and is also liberating and healing. Those who cannot tell stories, those who are shut up by what they saw, those are bad off.

What is so fascinating about this book is that you can just read it like a series of linked episodes or you can read each episode as an attempt to tell the story another way.

One of the most powerful chapters is certainly the first, the one that gave the book its title. Through the enumeration of the things the soldiers carry, we get to know the soldiers, we sense that some of them will die and some will be wounded. As we learn later many of the young men O’Brien served with and who are introduced too us in this first chapter, die. Some through enemy fire, some in accidents. Some deaths are heroic, others are ridiculous, like Kiowa’s who got shot and then suffocated in a field full of shit. What impressed me in this story is the description of the stress, the weight they had to lift, the endless walking.

They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.

We learn a lot about the feeling of having been in a war and in this particular war. We hear about the state of mind of the soldiers and what war did to them. There are some chapters that made me feel uncomfortable like the one of a young soldier’s girlfriend who stayed with them a few weeks, joined the Green Berets and ultimately disappeared in the night, swallowed by the war. She got addicted to the feeling of danger and the heightened sense of being alive that went with it. This is fascinating and also unsettling.

I have read other accounts of men who went to war, I know my own father’s stories but they sound different which leads me to the conclusion that some experiences were typical for the soldier in Vietnam.

The average age in our platoon, I’d guess, was nineteen or twenty, and as a consequence things often took on a curiously playful atmosphere, like a sporting event, at some exotic reform school. The competition could be lethal, yet there was a childlike exuberance to it all, lots of pranks and horseplay.

At the end of the book you have the whole story of Tim O’Brien’s time in Vietnam. From the day when he got the letter that informed him that he was drafted, to the first days in Vietnam, all through the weeks that passed, all the things that happened, the friends he found, the friends he lost and how he ended up feeling like an outcast because he was sent away from his company after he was wounded and had to do some light duty in another camp. Maybe not all of this is true, as O’Brien writes, but a lot of what is made up is closer to what really happened than that what is just the plain unadorned truth.

Here is my favourite quote:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The Things They Carried is fascinating and powerful. Writing at its very best.

I hope others have read it as well and liked it as much. I would also like to hear how it compares to Matterhorn.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Silver Season

German Literature Month – November 2011

Finally I am allowed to let you know what Lizzy and I have been planning in the background for quite a while now.

I’m happy to announce that Lizzy Siddal from Lizzy’s Literary Life and I are co-hosting a German Literature Month in November.  Ever since Iris from Iris on Books hosted her Month of Dutch Literature it’s been on our minds to do something similar for the literature of the German-speaking countries. We both share a passion for the literature of Austria, Germany and Switzerland and hope to find many like-minded and interested people to join us.

We have prepared a programme, including two readalongs and a lot of giveaways that generous publishers like Melville House, Bitter Lemon Press, Pereine Press, And Other Stories, Portobello Books and One World Classics have kindly contributed. The giveaways are international with the exception of a few which are UK only.

The official kick off will be on November first,  from then on we will post on alternating days. Lizzy will post on Tuesdays and Fridays, I will post on Mondays and Thursdays. Wednesdays, starting already in October, are reserved for giveaways. The readalongs will take place on Saturdays. Sunday will be weekly wrap up day and the time for announcing the winners of the giveaways.

The first readalong is dedicated to  Effi Briest. It will run for three weeks. Details and exact dates are given below.

The second readalong is my monthly Literature and War Readalong that I will shift to Saturday and I have also changed the previoulsy announced title. We will read Heinrich Böll’s The Silent Angel. This book is unique for reasons that I will reveal in a later post. On a more personal note it is important to me as Böll is my favourite German author.

The programme will look as follows

Week 1 German Literature

Maybe you like Thomas Mann or you are a fan of Genazino. Now’s the time to share this.

Week 2 Crime Fiction

There are a lot of crime novels written in German out there. Whether you like it gritty or rather go for psychological suspense, you are sure to find something.

Week 3 Austria and Switzerland 

You could either read some of the 19th century Swiss classics like Gotthelf, Keller or Meyer or finally read the Roths and Zweigs you have had on your TBR pile for years.

Week 4 Kleist and Other German Classics

Kleist died 200 years ago. We are going to read some of his novellas and give away some of his books but we will also read other classics.

Week 5 Read As You Please and Wrap Up

Wrap up week is a chance to read and review whatever you like. I’ll go for something that hasn’t been translated yet.

Three Week Readalong on Saturdays  (5th chapters 1-15, 12th chapters 16 – 24 and 19th chapters 25 – 36, 280 pages)

Literature and War Readalong 2011 on Saturday 26th November

The Silent Angel (184 pages)


These are some of the possible titles for the giveaways. The exact titles will be announced on the giveaway days.

We will post a few times in the upcoming weeks sharing reading suggestions, as we hope that many of you will read and review with us.

The idea is that you link your posts in the comment sections of our posts. The Sunday will be wrap up day in which we will give an overview of everything that has happened through the week.

Get your copies out, enter the giveaways, or buy a few books and join us.

Feel free to use the button and spread the word.

I’m looking forward to November.

Visit the German Literature Month Page for regular updates.

Beryl Bainbridge: The Dressmaker (1973)

Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naive and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love almost as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind …

Guy’s recent review of the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (you can find it here) put me in the mood to read Beryl Bainbridge who had been on my radar and reading pile for a while. Initially I didn’t even want to buy The Dressmaker as the cover looked like some soppy romance. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a fantastic book. It’s so fantastic that I don’t know how to describe her writing. One would have to quote her extensively to convey a good feeling for her art.

While I was reading the book I was alternatingly thinking three things: “Why did I not discover her earlier?”, I” want to write like her”, “How did she do that?”

The Dressmaker is set in wartime Liverpool, a place and time that interests me a lot. Young Rita lives with her two aunts, Marge and Nellie. Her mother died and her father, whom she calls Uncle Jack, a butcher,  was unable to cope and raise a girl on his own. That’s the reason why she finished living with her two spinsterly sisters. Nellie, who is a dressmaker, is a joyless woman. She only lives for the day when she can finally follow her own mother to the grave. She is very domineering and her cheerless ways crush her sister as much as her niece. She has turned polishing and looking after her mother’s furniture into a cult. The lifeless objects mean more to her than her fellow human beings. Marge is quite different. She was married but her husband died, she also seems to have affairs that Jack and Nellie try to crush as soon as they start. Still she is lively and tries to enjoy life as much as the other two allow it. Rita is  a very naive young girl, very cheerless as well and full of sentimental, romantic and unrealistic ideas. When she meets Ira, a young GI, she has all sorts of pictures and dreams in her mind but none matches reality.

Interestingly the novel starts at the end but we do not know that really until we finish the book.

Afterwards she went through into the little front room, the tape measure still dangling about her neck, and allowed herself a glass of port. And in the dark she wiped at the surface of the polished sideboard with the edge of her flowered pinny in case the bottle had left a ring.

Nothing is like it seems in this novel. That may not be an unusual premiss but what is unusual is the way Bainbridge provides information. She can describe a scene leaving out an important detail that she will give much later. This makes you feel as if you were discovering all sorts of things while reading. She would never give you the whole picture of any situation or a person right away. Reading her is like being sprayed with cool water every few minutes. It will keep you attentive, awake and alert the whole time.

Just like situations and characters are only understood completely after we have read most of the novel, the story and its ending are only fully grasped at the end.

Besides this very wonderful and unusual story telling, she touches on so many themes. It’s so accurate how she portrays the way those young GI’s were received in England, enthusiastic by the women and with a lot of jealousy by the men as they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, as they said. Economically they were so much better off than the British, it must have been quite painful for many men. There is a lot of prejudice but at the same time they are also idealized. The way young Rita felt was quite typical too.

She was mad for the way he said “dawg”, like he was a movie star, larger than life.

Of course he isn’t anyone famous or important and  doesn’t even come from a rich family as Rita assumes or hopes. Without being aware of it, Rita would probably have fallen for any man who would have given her the idea of escaping her oppressing situation. She is not only living in a cheerless but in a highly dysfunctional environment and under the surface a lot of things are smoldering. Repressed sexuality and joy are but a few results of the upbringing Nellie, Marge and Jack had to endure as children and are now passing on to their daughter and niece.

Bainbridge offers accomplished writing paired with an engrossing story that culminates in a surprising ending. If you haven’t read her, I can only urge you to rush and get one of her novels. If you have read her, I’m sure, you know what I’m talking about. I very rarely feel the urge to read all of someone’s novels. It does happen though. It just did.

After Guy’s suggestion I already ordered another one, An Awfully Big Adventure. Do you have any other recommendations?

Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo (1955) A Classic of Mexican Literature

Pedro Páramo” (1955) treats the physical and moral disintegration of a laconic ‘cacique’ (boss) and is set in a mythical hell on earth inhabited by dead individuals who are constantly haunted by their past transgressions.

Since years I wanted to read Pedro Páramo. It’s Juan Rulfo’s only novel and not only a classic of Mexican literature but one of the most important and most influential works of Latin American literature. Rulfo was a script writer and photographer (among other things) and his photos are quite impressive. Apart from this only novel, he left a collection of short stories El llano en llamas or The Burning Plain. Should you read Spanish, you are lucky as the stories are included in the same book in the Spanish version.

It’s always mysterious when someone writes only one novel, especially when it is an important one like Pedro Páramo. Susan Sontag who wrote the introduction to the English edition also touches on this.

Everyone asked Rulfo why he didn’t write another book, as if the point of a writer’s life was to go on writing and publishing. In fact, the point of a writer’s life is to produce a great book – that is, a book that will last – and that is what Rulfo did. (Susan Sontag)

When the book was published it was absolutely no success. It was called too Faulknerian, too loose, too heterogenous.

It isn’t an easy book but it is highly evocative and contains a multitude of powerful images. The photos below have been taken by Rulfo and many of them could serve to illustrate the novel which has also been turned into a movie.

On her deathbed Juan Preciado’s mother begs him to travel to her home village Comala and to look for his father the landowner Pedro Páramo and ask for his due. Juan does as he is told. When he approaches Comala it doesn’t look as his mother described it. Where is the beauty, the life? He meets people on his way and asks them about his father and also about the village and why it is so quiet and deserted. All the men and women he meets are elusive.  Someone at last indicates the house of a woman in which he can stay.

When the woman starts to tell Juan things about the people it becomes obvious that the village is deserted because everybody who lived there is dead. The people he sees are all ghosts. The noises he hears are the whispers of the dead.

The novel breaks into various different story lines from here. All those ghosts and voices start to tell their story. There is the story of the son of Pedro Páramo, killed by his horse. The story of the love between Juan’s mother and Pedro Páramo. The story of Susana, Pedro’s childhood sweetheart and second wife.

All the voices tell a different personal story but the underlying tale is the same. There is talk of corruption and oppression, exploitation and abuse. Murder and rape. Páramo is a bad man and so are his sons and it is only natural that the peasants and villagers plan an uprising.

The novel reads like a patchwork of different stories. As broken up as they are, it isn’t confusing, we know who speaks, we know who tells his tale.

While this isn’t a linear story, it is a stunning book. The writing is impressive. We hear the rain, we smell the odour of the dry earth when it is soaked, we see the shining full moon in the hot nights, we hear the ghosts whisper and see their shadows scurry along the walls. We see the tiny corn plants how they struggle for survival in the dry earth.

It’s a powerful novel infused with the spirit of the Mexican Día de los muertos or Day of the Dead at the same time it is an allegory of oppression and freedom that comes at the highest cost.

When you read Pedro Páramo it becomes obvious that “magic realism” has many faces.

I found this recording of Juan Rulfo reading one of his short stories in Spanish: Juan Rulfo reading  ¡Diles que no me maten!

I attached it because I liked the way he reads it a lot.

This is my second read for Carl’s R.I.P VI. Don’t forget to visit the reviewsite.

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time – Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht (2006) Short Stories

I’m glad I discovered this short story collection on Andrew Blackman’s blog thanks to his intriguing review (here is the link). Austrian author Alois Hotschnig is well worth reading. While I don’t see any resemblance with Thomas Bernhardt as some critics did (despite the fact that they are both Austrian), I did find quite a lot of parallels with Kafka, Patricia Highsmith and with one of my favourite authors, Dino Buzzati, another master of the uncanny. Hotschnig describes situations and people who make you feel quite uneasy.

Freud has written an essay called Das Unheimliche which is usually translated by The Uncanny. “Uncanny” does however not capture the full meaning of the word “unheimlich”. Many books, essays and articles have been written about the difficulty to translate the word into other languages. What I’m getting at here is the fact that all of Hotschnig’s stories represent this concept. “Das Unheimliche” as defined by Freud signifies an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar. (If you are interested in Freud’s essay here is the English translation).

The collection contains 9 short stories which circle all around people who watch and wait. Just the fact that they don’t do anything but that their presence can be felt at any moment makes them scary. Usually we are afraid of people doing something bad to us but in these stories the fact that the characters are constantly present and stare and watch feels menacing. It gets even more creepy once you realize the narrator is part of this. He is someone who has given up on life and stares and watches. Hotschnig’s stories illustrate incredibly well what passive-aggressive is all about.

The title story of the English edition Maybe This Time captures another uncanny element. In this case it’s the presence of an absence. The parents of the narrator don’t go out anymore as they wait for Walter, the father’s brother, to appear. The children have never seen him. They know he exists but they never meet him. Either he has just gone or he will arrive after they went. Without being there he is omnipresent and the people in the story are like the soldiers in Buzzati’s Deserto dei Tartatri waiting for something that will never happen without realizing that their life will be over without having been lived.

Identity is another element that Hotschnig explores. In his last story called “Du kennst sie nicht, es sind Fremde” (which I would translate a s “You don’t know them, they are strangers”), a man is someone else every time he enters his apartment. The apartment changes as well and so do the people he meets. Depending on whom he faces, he is another person and after a while he chases this experience of seeing himself as someone else through other’s eyes.

I can’t say anything about the translation as I read the German original. They only thing that struck me was the title. Very often the title of a collection of short stories is equal to the title of one of the stories in the book. The German original is called Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht which means “This didn’t calm the children”. There is no story in the book with this title but the title itself has something unsettling, captures the mood of the book. Why the editor of the English translation chose the title  Maybe This Time which is also the  title of one of the stories, eludes me. It’s as if a tiny but significant part had been left out.

As abstract and intellectual as the themes may seem that Hotschnig explores, it’s important to add that his stories are full of vivid descriptions of everyday life. With a few words he evokes the quiet calm of a garden in the early morning which is only disturbed by the distant voices of children. It’s because these stories capture the familiar so well that the unfamiliar strikes us with so much force.

Daphne du Maurier: The House on The Strand (1965)

The House on the Strand

Echoing the great fantastic stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, The House on the Strand is a masterful yarn of history, romance, horror, and suspense that will grip the reader until the last surprising twist.

What a mysterious and hypnotic read. I really enjoyed it and was surprised that it was much more complex than I had assumed at first. Complex and also dark. The House on the Strand is a time-travel story, something that isn’t very typical for Daphne du Maurier and also a genre that I don’t like normally. If the part in our time hadn’t been so compelling I wouldn’t have liked it that much, I’m sure.

Richard Young has come to a point in his life in which nothing is certain anymore. He is married to a young dynamic American woman , Vita, who has two little boys from a first marriage. She would like him to move from England to the States and start working for her brother. Although Dick has resigned from his old post with a renowned editor, he can’t make up his mind or rather, he doesn’t want to move to the States. Very clearly he has to decide whether this intercontinental marriage does still make sense or not.

The summer holidays have started and Magnus, Dick’s childhood friend, has lent him his old family home in Cornwall. The only thing he’d like Dick to do in exchange, is to try a drug that he has developed which will transport the user back to the 14th century. Dick has almost a week to try out the drug until Vita and the boys will arrive from the States and join him for their summer holiday.

Right after his first trip to 14th century Cornwall, Dick is hooked. He is fascinated by what he sees, a complex story of interwoven families, betrayal, adultery and crime that is displayed before his very eyes with so much intensity and brightness that it seems more appealing than his real life.

Soon after the first trip he goes on the next one. Being “over there” doesn’t pose a problem but coming back has occasionally side effects like nausea and confusion. Additionally he never knows where he will return. It could be quite dangerous as there are roads and railway lines which didn’t exist in the 14th century England. The way du Maurier wrote these transitions has quite an effect on the reader as well. She blends the changing so well that I had almost the feeling I took part.

What is peculiar is the fact that both Magnus, who also went on trips, and Dick see everything that happens through the eyes of a man named Roger, a servant. On his first trip Dick sees Isolda a woman who moves him like Vita never could.

Things start to go wrong after the first two trips. Vita arrives far too early and interferes with Dick’s wish of going on further trips. He will have to sneak out and try the drug behind their backs. The whole dynamic of their relationship is interesting. They have very different expectations. All Dick wants is to be left alone and go on trips, all she wants is to be with him and plan their future.

The House on the Strand is as much the portrait of an addiction as the story of a marriage going wrong. At the heart of it is a man who doesn’t know what he wants in his life and what direction it should take. He must learn to face the consequences of the decisions he has taken in the past. We wonder why he got married to Vita in the first place, they seem so ill-assorted.

What makes this an uncanny read is the fact that Dick can’t fight his addiction and that the drug has side effects about which Magnus didn’t inform him. Both Magnus and Dick pay for their experiments with the drug. In very different ways. The ending is pure horror.

I have read quite a few books by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn and her short story collection Don’t Look Now. While The House on the Strand isn’t the best, it is very good and so special that I can really recommend it. It’s uncanny and realistic at the same time and very engrossing.

The House on the Strand is my first contribution to  Carl’s R.I.P. VI. Here’s the link to other reviews.

Ladies in Lavender – The Short Story by William J. Locke (1916) and the Movie (2004)

Ever since I have watched the charming Ladies in Lavender I had felt like reading the short story on which it was based. It took a while to find it as I did not know William J. Locke‘s books. I finally discovered that it was in his short story collection Far-Away Stories. Ladies in Lavender is the only one I have read but since I liked it and I bought the book, I will certainly read others sooner or later.

Two elderly sisters (they are 45 and 48 respectively in the book but in their 70s in the movie), both spinsters, live together in a beautiful house on the seaside in Cornwall. They inherited the house from their late father and since his death, some 27 years ago, they have been living in that house alone, sharing a bedroom like a married couple. Theirs is a quiet life, very similar to the life of the ladies in Cranford. A change of weather, something special for lunch, a visitor, are the only distractions they seem to have. They are content and live a certain routine, with the older of the two being in charge.

All this ends when they find a young man on the beach below their window. The sea has washed him ashore. He is unconscious and his ankle is broken. The two ladies cannot help seeing how delicate and beautiful he looks and decide to have him carried to their house and look after him.

What follows is at times quite comedic in the movie. The young man doesn’t speak English, only a little German, but the ladies hardly speak any German at all. It takes a while and some coincidences until they find out that he is a talented Polish violinist.

It is touching how intensely these two old women fall in love with the young man. None of them has ever fallen in love before. They were not married, never had lovers. The adventure with the young man is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to them, it feels like a fairy tale and they assume he will stay with them forever.

The story of two elderly women falling in love with a very young man could seem somewhat far-fetched but a few years back my mother told me a similar story. She lived in an area of the city that is very green and where a lot of people walk their dogs. My mother was part of a group of 50 and 60+ women going for walks together when suddenly, one day, an extremely good-looking young man appeared with his dog (I wasn’t introduced so can’t tell you how good-looking he was). In any case my mother was quite bewildered as she observed how one of the older women started to fall for the young man. But not only was she in love, she assumed that he had feelings as well as he was very kind and attentive. When he finally showed up after a few months with a young girlfriend, the woman had a major breakdown.

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play the elderly sisters in the movie and they play them extremely well. They are touching and funny at the same time. The choice for the young man, German actor Daniel Brühl, was less fortunate. I just don’t think he is all that handsome, at least certainly not at handsome as the man described in the book.

In the novel, the story plays clearly before WWI while the movie takes place just before WWII, apart from this and changing the age of the main characters, the movie stays true to the short story but goes into much more detail in the second half.

As nice as the short story is, I preferred the movie. It’s a lovely movie with great actresses, a beautiful setting and a melancholic undertone that depicts very well a certain type of woman that life has passed by.

As I said in the beginning I did not know William J. Locke. It seems he was born in British Guinea in 1863. His novels were five times on the bestseller lists in the US and there are 24 movies based on his work. Amazing.